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USOC Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

Olympic committee is in limbo, anticipating major restructuring in wake of leadership crisis.

March 07, 2003|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

After two months of crisis, the U.S. Olympic Committee finds itself in limbo, awaiting a major restructuring, perhaps including key changes to the 1978 law that gave it life.

A purge of senior leadership, sparked by an ethics-related investigation centering on former chief executive Lloyd Ward, has given the USOC a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a makeover, Olympic observers have said. Two reform commissions are at work, one chartered by Congress, the other a USOC in-house panel.

At issue: any and all aspects of USOC operations, structure and culture. Unclear, however, is how broad or deep change can be, particularly to the 1978 Amateur Sports Act -- given time-related constraints as well as the prospect of war in the Middle East.

At stake is ensuring the USOC's leading position among the world's 199 national Olympic committees. But the reform process unfolds at a delicate moment, just as the International Olympic Committee undertakes negotiations for U.S. television rights for the 2010 and 2012 Games. Such rights have traditionally been a leading source of USOC revenue.

"We understand that it's a task," said Don Fehr, who heads the five-person committee appointed by Congress to review the USOC.

One of the tests confronting the USOC is what -- if anything -- ought to be done about finding replacements for those gone in the recent exodus.

Ward resigned Saturday. He had been a focus of increasingly critical attention for the last months of 2002. It was amplified by the Dec. 30 disclosure that he had directed USOC staff to help a company with ties to his brother and a friend that was seeking a contract for the 2003 Pan American Games, and then by news reports last week on USOC ticketing procedures and travel expenses.

Jim Scherr, a senior USOC staffer, is handling day-to-day operations. There is no timetable for finding a new CEO.

Fred Wohlschlaeger, the USOC's chief operating officer, resigned Tuesday. Ward had hired him in January 2002.

Marty Mankamyer, elected USOC president last summer, resigned Feb. 4. Bill Martin, athletic director at the University of Michigan, is serving as acting president.

Toby Wong, the marketing director hired by Ward, resigned a few weeks ago.

Other senior USOC officials have resigned in recent weeks, among them ethics compliance officer Pat Rodgers.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) said Tuesday that the USOC's chief financial officer, Early Reese, also ought to step down.

In recent weeks, Congress has convened two hearings into the USOC's management tumult.

A General Accounting Office audit remains possible and the possibility of direct governmental involvement in U.S. Olympic affairs cannot be dismissed, USOC officials have said.

The Justice Department is apparently investigating allegations leveled by an organizing committee official in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, that a bribe was offered to win a Pan Am Games deal for Energy Management Technologies of Detroit, although no deal was struck.

The USOC's internal reform commission is aiming to finish by April. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others have made it plain in recent weeks, though, that they are not much interested in the USOC's internal study. The congressional panel is due to report by June 30.

John MacAloon, a University of Chicago professor and expert on the Olympic movement, said he expected the USOC that comes out of the reform process to be directed by a slimmed-down executive board of 12 or 15, perhaps even fewer, as opposed to the 123 on the current board.

MacAloon said he also hoped it would include "persons who are respected worldwide as Olympic managers and authorities," to rectify a common U.S. problem within the IOC, where U.S. political influence has long been on the wane.

Laurence Chalip, a University of Texas professor who has studied the USOC and the Olympic committees of other countries, said it's essential that a "new" USOC be subjected to an oversight process.

There is no oversight now, and "on a scale of one to 10, [an oversight function] is a 10," he said. "Whether it should be congressional, I'm not persuaded."

Harvey Schiller, a former USOC executive and a member of the congressional reform panel, said this week, "If we're reflecting, really, on the U.S. Olympic Committee, I think we have to run it like a great business."

The reform process also promises to open doors to those who have not been part of the USOC -- in particular, current or former Olympic athletes with business or management experience. For example, Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals in swimming in the 1972 Munich Games, has not held any position of authority in the USOC.

Scherr, a 1988 Olympian in wrestling, earned an MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management and has been a sports administrator for more than a dozen years. He enjoys widespread respect within the USOC.

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